Team Fortress 2 and Paratext
StoryScan: Critical Hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Team Fortress 2, (Valve, 2007), the cartoonified follow-up to Valve’s classic team shooter. This essay will cover content from some of the videos and comics written in conjunction with the game. Players who have not viewed these materials may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers.
In the early days of gaming, developers didn’t have the space to tell extensive stories on cartridges. If they wanted to give players narrative context for the gameplay, the developers had to use outside sources. Instruction manuals, promotional materials, and adaptations served as storytelling vehicles for early games, giving life to the clumps of pixels on home consoles and in arcades. Nowadays, game developers have all the resources they need to tell their stories in-game, but certain game types still create challenges for narrative designers. Games that focus entirely on player-versus-player combat (PVP) are uniquely ill-suited for storytelling, as they lack any linear progression with narrative checkpoints. As a result, some modern game developers still choose to tell their stories through contemporary forms of paratext, including videos, short stories, and webcomics.
One of the best-known paratextual storytelling successes of the modern era is Team Fortress 2 (Valve, 2007), the colorful follow-up to 1999’s Team Fortress Classic. As the sequel to a much-loved title, Team Fortress 2 was not an easy game to make. It took eight years, multiple re-designs, and countless delays.1 During that time, the developers chose to eschew the realistic character designs and backdrop of the original in favor of a bright, cartoonish style that borrowed from the art and advertising of the mid-twentieth century. These artistic decisions quickly became a source of narrative inspiration, but the restrictions of the team shooter genre limited how much storytelling the developers could do within the game itself. To get around these restrictions, the developers resorted to telling their stories through paratext. Using promotional videos and webcomics, the team behind Team Fortress 2 built on the elements included in the games to develop the characters, reinforce the tone, and expand on the central scenario.
Storytelling Through Paratext
Team Fortress 2 is a game grounded in character archetypes. When players join a game, they can choose to play as one of nine classes: the Scout, the Heavy, the Demoman, the Spy, the Sniper, the Pyro, the Medic, the Soldier, or the Engineer. Each of these nine classes offers unique gameplay styles based on their character archetypes. For example, the Medic plays a support role, healing his team from the backlines, while the Scout runs ahead, using his high speed to dodge enemy fire and report back on their position. The functions of the other seven classes are similarly obvious from their generic titles, assuming the player knows the archetypes. What isn’t apparent from the menu is who these characters are as individuals or what makes them different from other archetype examples from competing games.
Enter the ‘Meet the Team’ series, a collection of promotional videos that expand on Team Fortress 2’s unique characters. Originally conceived as extended versions of the voice actors’ audition scripts,2 the ‘Meet the Team’ videos allowed the developers to show off the character work they’d done behind the scenes while testing out graphical improvements for the game software. Each video focuses on a single team member, detailing previously unknown aspects of their backstory, their desires, their strengths, or their weaknesses. For example, in ‘Meet the Sniper‘, players get a taste of the Sniper’s relationship with his parents while also learning his ethos: “Be polite; be professional; have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” This strategic outlook defines his character while setting him apart from teammates like the self-absorbed Scout, the moronic Soldier, and the progress-obsessed Medic, all of whom have their own ‘Meet the Team’ videos to give them depth.
Thanks to the combined efforts of the designer, the voice actors, the animators, and the writers, the ‘Meet the Team’ series was met with resounding acclaim. The team enjoyed making the videos, as well, as the short studies helped them better understand the characters and their motivations.3 This understanding also improved the in-game storytelling, as the weapons and skills became more diverse and absurd to reflect the characters’ outlandish personalities. By developing the game’s characters through paratext, the designers found a new way to engage with fans while enhancing their own connections to the characters, resulting in a richer experience for players and developers alike.
To develop a first-person shooter is to engage with video game violence, and Team Fortress 2 doesn’t shy away from on-screen gore. Instead, it revels in the mayhem, spraying giblets and blood quantities so vast that the violence leapfrogs over the realm of disturbing and lands squarely in the absurd. The cartoonish character designs assist in this endeavor, too, as do the over-the-top line reads from the voice actors. Together, they form a world full of mercenaries who don’t just accept the absurdity of warfare, but delight in it.
Team Fortress 2’s paratext reinforces this gleeful absurdity by putting its cartoon violence front and center, ensuring that anyone who engages with the paratext knows what to expect from the game. From the very first ‘Meet the Team’ video, ‘Meet the Heavy‘, Valve makes it clear that their characters are childishly excited to get on the battlefield. The Heavy is particularly proud of his mini-gun, Sascha, which weighs one hundred fifty kilograms and costs four hundred thousand dollars to fire for twelve seconds.* It’s an absurd factoid made doubly so by the gun’s diminutive nickname, and it’s in this absurdity that Valve’s paratext excels.
Valve takes its farcical approach to new limits with its other primary paratextual source: the Team Fortress 2 comics. Beginning with a faux-advertisement for the Sniper’s new ability, Jarate, the Team Fortress 2 comics take cartoon violence to all-new levels. In ‘The Insult That Made a “Jarate Master” Out of Sniper,’** the Sniper, known for hiding and waiting for his targets for days on end, shows off his ability to throw jars of his own urine at the enemy. It’s a disgusting skill, and it isn’t polite or professional, but it works because it takes the pre-established comedic approach to violence and turns it up to the next level. Subsequent expand on this tone, delighting in cartoon hijinks, over-the-top violence, and lots and lots of property damage. As a result, any prospective players who consume these comics, or any of the paratextual materials, will immediately get a sense of what kind of tone they can expect from the game itself.
As a team-shooter focused around PVP, Team Fortress 2 does not have a story in the classical sense. It has no beginning, no ending, and no changes in tension. What it has is a scenario: an endless war between two teams, the astutely named RED and BLU. The characters are the same on both sides; regardless of which team you’re on, your objective is to defeat the enemy. Although the nature of that defeat may look different from map to map—capture the flag, payload delivery, and point control are just some of the objectives—the scenario is fundamentally the same from game to game. Two teams enter; one team wins. It’s the perfect paradigm for a PVP team-shooter, but it lacks many fundamental elements of story that audiences crave. Sure enough, this is another place where Valve’s paratext shines.
Some of the ‘Meet the Team‘ videos tell short stories, but very few of them engage with the game’s RED vs. BLU scenario to develop the overarching plot and the world. This is where the comics shine. The ‘Loose Canon‘ comic, released three years after the games’ launch, illuminated the origins of the RED/BLU conflict, while subsequent comics introduced beloved side characters like Australian arms-dealer Saxton Hale and Miss Pauling, assistant to the enigmatic Administrator who runs the games. Both of these characters found their way into subsequent promotional videos (“Jungle Inferno” and “Love and War,” respectively) and are considered canon characters in the Team Fortress 2 universe. Their introductions helped create a loose plot for the series by creating a greater context for the endless war between teams. RED and BLU are more than just faceless entities; they’re corporate subsidiaries with leaders, financiers, supply chains, vendors, and personnel. This additional context creates more opportunities for developing characters and reinforcing tone, thus continuing the virtuous cycle of paratextual reinforcement.
Video game narratives have come a long way since Pac-man,4 but games in some genres still need a helping hand to tell their stories. With Team Fortress 2, Valve overcame the hurdles of the team-shooter genre by using paratext to tell its stories. The videos and comics that accompanied Team Fortress 2 developed the characters, reinforced the tone, and fleshed out the core scenario to create a narrative that fans love to this day. Game writers who wish to enhance their stories through paratext can look at Team Fortress 2 as an example of how to use supplemental materials to expand their world and rise above the weaknesses of their genre.
Paratext is the material that exists to support, contextualize, and promote a creative work.
Tone is the emotional expression of a story’s theme, as well as the source of mood and atmosphere.
StoryScan: Guilty Gear Strive and Tone
Guilty Gear Strive uses its gleefully absurd tone to illustrate its themes while staying true to both genre and franchise conventions.
1 Ocampo, Jason. “Half-Life 2: Episode Two – The Return of Team Fortress 2 and Other Surprises.” GameSpot, 2006
2-3 Totilo, Stephen. “Valve Dreams Of Team Fortress 2 Movie, Divulges ‘Meet The Team’ Origins.” Kotaku, 2009.
4 Action Button. “ACTION BUTTON REVIEWS PAC-MAN.” YouTube, 2020.
* Reference Footage: Gameokratie. “Meet the Team Fortress 2 Team (all of them in HD).” YouTube, 2012.
** Reference Comics: “Team Fortress 2 – Comics.” Valve, 2009-2016.